The Hopeless Governments of Roland Emmerich’s Films have Become Uncomfortably Relevant

Whether we are being attacked by aliens, ravaged by extreme climate change, or nuked by a massive solar flare, we humans have had it pretty rough in Roland Emmerich’s disaster-porn blockbusters. The German director has been numbing our brains for over 20 years with his chaotic brand of end-of-the-world scenarios, known for their overblown CGI setpieces, hilariously stereotyped characters, and enough one-liners to make even Michael Bay blush.

Emmerich’s films are known for being big on budget and weak on quality, but the events of the last few months – particularly in the U.S – have made the director’s films oddly relevant for rather different reasons. Aside from their love of headache-inducing scenes of apocalyptic carnage, Emmerich’s films are tied together by their focus on humanity’s poor reaction times during urgent situations. 

In each of his films, we see characters repeatedly ignoring the approaching danger and wasting crucial time, often in the belief that there is no threat at all. Emmerich’s films specifically single out the U.S government as having the worst response to the crisis at hand, and each time the officials end up losing their heads and melting down amidst a jumble of apocalyptic disasters. Although blundering governments are nothing new to any of us, Trump’s response to the Coronavirus outbreak and his general headless chicken approach over the last several months has chimed uncomfortably close to the situations found in the disaster genre.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Emmerich’s films can be split into two categories: extraterrestrial threat and natural disasters. In the opening acts of The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, we see a group of scientists struggling to communicate the dangers of the latter scenario to the government (it’s always the U.S government of course, in typically western-centric blockbuster fashion). Whether it’s climatologist Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid) begging the Vice President (Kenneth Welsh) to act on fast-moving climate change or geologist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) bursting into a black-tie event to warn the White House Chief of Staff (Oliver Platt) about the earth’s core collapsing, they are always ridiculed and laughed out of the room. Quaid’s scientist is scorned by the V.P and told that “Our economy is every bit as fragile as the environment,” while Ejiofor’s Helmsley is quite literally mocked by the whole room. 

Emmerich deliberately plays up the dramatic irony of these opening scenes by showing us clear evidence of the approaching disaster, like the collapse of the ice shelf in the opening of The Day After Tomorrow, and then swiftly cutting to the government laughing in the face of the danger. This is where Emmerich’s unsubtle, extremely on the nose approach to filmmaking actually comes in handy. 

Although his screenplays are far from subtle and his characters ever so thinly-drawn, he really does have a knack for creating the most deplorable government officials and opening his films with the most exasperating situations, where there is little time to waste and tensions are already high. 

In the past, these scenarios seemed ridiculous. Surely if there was a major looming disaster that threatened the lives of millions of people, the government wouldn’t keep battling with the scientists who had tried to help in the first place? But at the heart of these scenes lies the brutal truth that we as a species are blighted with a debilitating superiority complex that makes us far too slow to realize the reality of a situation and even slower to react. We need look no further than Trump’s actions over the last few months for evidence of this.

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures

From claiming that 200,000 people dying from the virus would be “a very good job” to recommending that people inject disinfectant into their body to fight the virus, the President has repeatedly laughed in the face of science and ethical responsibility. His reaction to the virus could almost be plucked straight out of one of Emmerich’s blockbusters. In fact, Platt pretty much echoes Trump’s word for word in 2012 when he declares that saving 400,000 people from the global disaster would be “nothing short of a miracle.” 

In Independence Day, Emmerich’s most successful feature to date, the government’s incompetent response – this time to the arrival of a gigantic alien ship – plays an even larger role in escalating the chaos. Led by Bill Pullman’s hopelessly indecisive President Whitmore, the White House is again instantly clueless over how to deal with the threat of an attack. Emmerich relishes this chance to strike out at politicians, hitting his stride as he packs in scene upon scene of headless officials running this way and that around the White House while desperately avoiding the questions of confused reporters.

The idea of the Oval Office as the brains of America is flipped on its head and turned into a chaotic warzone in itself, with  Whitmore stranded in the middle of it all. Chaos is something that Emmerich obviously specializes in and here, even before the aliens have arrived, he thrives in throwing the government into complete chaos. This is despite the later reveal that they knew about the existence of the aliens all along, which weirdly chimes with the actual Pentagon’s recent release of several UFO videos – but that’s a story for another time.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox

President Whitmore’s team of advisers are seen arguing wildly about the best way to respond to the aliens, with ideas rocketing around the room amid a deluge of half-heard shouts and commands. “Isn’t it possible that this thing may just pass us by?” asks one adviser, signalling the sheer blind faith that some have resorted to, while another shouts “Let’s retarget some ICBMs to blow it out of the sky,” an example of the government’s typical military posturing that features heavily throughout Independence Day. The idea that the aliens can be wiped out by sheer force and weapons is another damning example of mankind’s crippling superiority complex and is something that Emmerich continues to double down on as the government sends the air force to try and take down a spaceship the size of a small planet. 

These decisions, born out of a toxic mixture of infighting, a lack of clear leadership, and a belief that we are invulnerable to attack, leads to the aliens nuking large swathes of the planet in Independence Day, but these mistakes have also been a defining feature of Trump’s administration. 

The messages surrounding the virus outbreak have been conflicting from the beginning. Trump has clashed with several of his advisers and what seems like a whole squadron of scientists, including the head of the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force Dr. Anthony Fauci who constantly has to step in to correct Trump’s wild statements about the virus. 

Of course, Trump’s complete lack of responsibility regarding pretty much anything is nothing new, but his increasingly erratic and blasé approach to the outbreak has grown eerily close to Emmerich’s films and it almost makes me wonder if the President has been using these films as some sort of guide on how to respond to a global disaster. He has become the prime example of the problematic superiority complex that Emmerich tackles so bluntly. At this point I really wouldn’t have been surprised to see Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover), the President in 2012, whipping out his phone and tweeting about the “fake news” media a hundred times a day as the world crumbled around him.

Emmerich’s governments are also downright terrible at communicating the urgency of the situation to the rest of the country. By wasting crucial time squabbling over policy and arguing with the scientists, helping the rest of the country prepare for the disaster comes as little more than an afterthought. This idea is a key plot point in 2012, where the government has spent all of their preparation time before the disaster hits secretly building a fleet of ships to save the top 1% of the population (the price for a ticket onboard coming in at a cool one billion euros). 

Although the ships are later opened to everyone in a preposterous finale that involves John Cusack’s superdad Jackson Curtis – a.k.a the world’s unlikeliest action hero – swooping in to rescue his wife from drowning, the government’s lack of concern for the majority of the population is clear. Similar decisions are made in Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow, with scientist Jack Hall (Quaid) telling the President in the latter film that since they acted so late in the face of extreme global cooling, people’s best option is just to “try to ride it out. Pray.” 

And again, these kinds of approaches have become shockingly familiar when we look at the current U.S government’s fight against the virus. Time and again we have seen a complete lack of communication between the White House and the rest of the country, leaving everyone in a state of confusion and anger.

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures

For months, Trump completely downplayed the virus, claiming that it would “disappear. One day it’s like a miracle – it will disappear,” despite being warned that it was likely to lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths across the country. And just as the blind faith shown by the government’s in Emmerich’s films simply led to more devastation, Trump’s lack of action at a vital time has left the U.S without testing kits and vital protective equipment, meaning the fatality rate has continued to rise. 

Meanwhile, during all of this chaos, Trump continues to make a fool of himself in press conferences, may of which have echoes of a scene in 2012 where the governor of California (a clear Schwarzenegger spoof played by Lyndall Grant) goofs around in a conference and assures people “that the worst is over.” Cue a catastrophic earthquake that rips LA apart and a preposterous escape involving Jackson (Cusack) and a limousine.

Perhaps the most egregious example of Emmerich’s love of catastrophically bad governments is in Independence Day: Resurgence, the 2016 sequel that was coincidentally released a few months before Trump took office. Here, the disaster plays out as America celebrates their victory from the events of Independence Day, meaning they failed to notice the 3000 mile wide spaceship looming above the planet. 

The government makes the exact same mistakes as last time in almost comical fashion, arguing over the best plan of action until it is too late. Just like in the original film, the only plan the government seem to know is attack, attack, attack, and of course this gets them absolutely nowhere, leaving it up to plucky scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) and some rogue pilots from the “Earth Space Defense” to clean up the mess again.

In the last few months, it has become painfully clear that we as a species suffer from a crippling superiority complex. The horribly slow reaction to the spread of Coronavirus has been a calamity, and Trump’s behaviour as juvenile as ever. The ignorant belief that we can just ride out any looming danger has reared its head once again in the ugliest of ways and is something that Emmerich’s films have mined repeatedly. 

Previously, it would have been hard to believe that the government could deliberately ignore the risk of rapidly rising climate change or squabble over how to react to the earth’s core swiftly melting. Now these scenarios are all becoming a little too real. As the tagline for 2012 declares: “We Were Warned.”

Header image courtesy of Columbia Pictures